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Somatic Exercises for Anxiety Relief

Self-soothing touch butterfly hug somatic exercise

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Anxiety is a natural response essential for our survival. It’s the nervous system's way of communicating that something in your environment feels unsafe and requires your attention. This mobilizes the body to take action and respond to the threat, whether that be to fight or flee.


Throughout the day, the fight-or-flight response can be triggered even in safe situations. Your brain is constantly scanning the environment for evidence of danger. As you take in your surroundings through your senses, your brain either labels what you’re seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting and hearing as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe.’ Hearing someone slam a car door, witnessing an argument, staring at your mounting pile of paperwork, or writing an email, can activate the fear response. While you may not be in any physical danger, your brain may perceive this external stimuli as threatening. This results in the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.


When anxiety surfaces, it’s common to want to push the feelings down, numb the sensation through distractions, try to ‘fix’ the issue, or fixate on the worst-case scenarios. These strategies may be your body's response to uncomfortable sensations. It may feel safer to distract and numb the sensations than to feel the anxiety. Unfortunately, these strategies offer short-term relief as unprocessed feelings can linger in the body. 


Ignored anxiety can manifest in the body as tension, pain, stiffness, restricted and shallow breathing, headaches, migraines, fatigue, numbness, brain fog, tingling sensations, quickened speech, fast movements, dizziness, and more. This speaks to the importance of feeling and expressing anxiety, rather than thinking your way out of feeling it or distracting yourself.


Somatic practices offer tools to acknowledge and work through anxiety in a safe and nurturing way. Techniques like breathwork, grounding practices, self-soothing touch, body scans, and gentle movement practices can help release stress and anxiety, allowing you to navigate these feelings with compassion, love and understanding.


What is Somatics?


The term ‘somatics’ means “of or relating to the living body.” The word ‘soma’ means “the body as perceived from within.” Put simply, somatics is all about tuning into your body’s internal sensations and experiences. 


Somatic movements invite the exploration of the mind-body connection as you explore internal sensations from a place of compassionate curiosity. These sensations - emotions, feelings, impulses, tension, discomfort, ease, heat, coolness, and more - provide valuable insights into your physical, mental and emotional well-being. Approaching these sensations with compassion and curiosity can pave the way for physical and emotional healing.


In somatic movement, the focus is on the inner experience of the movement rather than the external appearance, alignment, or the end result. It’s about how you feel and experience the movements from within. You are empowered to move in a way that feels good in your body. This embodied exploration invites a loving and nurturing connection with oneself. 


Through somatic exercises, you become aware of habitual movement patterns that your nervous system has mapped out. By exploring these patterns through self-inquiry, you may discover that they contribute to tension, pain, discomfort, or movement restrictions in your body. You may also discover that certain movement patterns are linked to emotions, thoughts, impulses and feelings.


Somatic exercises aim to retrain these movement patterns, leading to improved mobility, range of motion, posture, balance, coordination, tension release, relief from chronic pain, emotional release, and more.


Many somatic practices incorporate slow, gentle, and coordinated movements, often performed while lying on the floor. The floor can offer sensory feedback, which can heighten body awareness and create a felt sense of inner safety. Slow movement enhances the mind-body connection as you become more aware of internal sensations like muscular tension, areas of stored emotion, movement patterns, areas of ease and comfort, breathing patterns, and so on. Somatic practices encourage you to turn towards your body for guidance and feedback. Although most somatic exercises are slow and gentle, some, like the ‘shake and release’ technique, are quick. 


The Feldenkrais Method, somatic yoga, breathwork practices, the Alexander Technique, body scans, progressive muscle relaxation, restorative yoga, posture exercises, grounding techniques, and more, are all examples of somatic practices. These practices invite non-judgmental curiosity, providing an opportunity to connect with oneself through movement.


Ultimately, somatic practices can improve your physical, mental and emotional well-being by releasing stress, anxiety and tension from the body.


Side body stretch with gentle fold somatic exercise

Benefits of Somatic Exercises


Somatic exercises can:

  • Alleviate stress and anxiety by eliciting the relaxation response

  • Reduce muscular tension

  • Enhance flexibility and mobility

  • Improve balance and coordination

  • Provide pain relief, including chronic pain

  • Heighten body awareness

  • Improve postural awareness 

  • Improve breathing quality

  • Rewire habitual movement patterns

  • Build new neural pathways

  • Strengthen the mind-body connection

  • Improve emotional awareness

  • Assist in releasing stuck emotions within the body

  • Encourage the practice of present moment awareness 

  • Evoke feelings of joy and compassion

  • Cultivate empowerment through self-inquiry and exploration


Somatic Exercises for Stress and Anxiety Relief


The following somatic exercises can support your physical, mental and emotional well-being. You do not require any special equipment for these exercises. All you need is a comfortable and quiet space to practice, and your wonderful self. 


1. The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique


5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique holding onto an eye pillow somatic exercise

Engaging in this grounding technique activates your 5 senses - sight, touch, hear, smell, and taste - helping to anchor you in the present moment. This present moment awareness technique is useful for when you’re experiencing racing thoughts, worries about the future, or rumination. 


Take your time as you move through this exercise. This grounding technique can be used while your grocery shopping, as you're taking a stroll around the block, as a passenger in a car, while at the movies, and more.


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable seat of choice, maybe sitting on a chair with your feet resting against the ground. 

  2. Look around your space and name 5 things you see. Saying the names of these items aloud can be useful. Observe the colors, shapes, and the location of these items. For example, “I see a small pink ball on my desk, a clear glass of water on a coaster, a tree outside my window, a funny grumpy cat calendar on my wall, and a black printer resting on a filing cabinet.” 

  3. Next, locate 4 items you can touch or hold onto in your space. Sense the temperature, texture, and the weight of each item. Take your time, noting any interesting details.

  4. Listen for 3 sounds that you can hear in your space, near and far. Closing your eyes (if comfortable) can help you focus on what you’re hearing. Tune into your personal soundscape.

  5. Identify 2 scents in your environment. Scents could be flowers, shampoo, lotion, books, a drink, food, deodorant, clothing, and more.

  6. Finally, focus on 1 thing you taste. This can be real or imagined. Perhaps you can taste some leftover toothpaste, or maybe you imagine that you are eating your favorite snack (dark chocolate anyone?!).


2. Diaphragmatic Breathing


Practicing diaphragmic breathing on the back somatic exercise

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, is a breathwork technique designed to calm an overactive nervous system. In moments of fight-or-flight, it is common for breathing to be shallow, restricted, and felt more in the upper chest area. If this becomes a habitual breathing pattern, it can lead to muscular tension, migraines, tension headaches, stiffness, dizziness, pain, fatigue, brain fog, and heightened feelings of overwhelm and stress. 


Diaphragmatic breathing invites the relaxation response to kick in as you explore slowing down your inhalations and exhalations. This slow and gentle flow of breath sends messages of calm and safety to your nervous system.


How To: 

  1. Ease your back body onto a mat, towel, or carpeted area. If you prefer, you can do this exercise seated in a chair.

  2. If you’re lying down, bend at your knees and allow the soles of your feet to rest on the surface beneath you.

  3. Soften your gaze or close your eyes.

  4. Take a moment to observe points of contact with the floor or chair, noticing how your body settles against it. 

  5. Slowly place one hand on your heart space and your other hand on your belly. Allow your upper arms to relax on the surface beneath you.

  6. Observe where you feel your breath moving your physical body without passing judgment or changing your breath in any way. Simply observe the sensation.

  7. After a few moments of exploration, begin to direct your breath towards your belly.

  8. Take a slow breath in through your nose as you direct your breath towards your belly.

  9. Exhale slowly through your nose or your mouth, releasing the breath. 

  10. Continue this slow and gentle breathing pattern, noticing the rise and fall of your belly with each breath.

  11. To elicit the relaxation response, experiment with making your exhalations slightly longer than your inhalations.

  12. Notice any interesting thoughts, sensations, or feelings that may be surfacing without passing judgment.

  13. After a few moments, allow your breath to return to its natural rhythm.

  14. When you feel ready, open your eyes.

  15. If you’re lying down, take your time transitioning to a seated position. 


3. Self-Soothing Touch


Self-soothing touch gently resting hand against jaw to release tension somatic exercise

Engaging in self-soothing touch can provide comfort and foster a sense of inner safety. Feelings of safety can activate the rest-and-digest response of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. Practicing this act of self-compassion can trigger the release of oxytocin, a ‘feel-good’ hormone. Engaging in self-soothing touch deepens connection to self and enhances emotional well-being.


How To:

  1. Scan your body for an area where you feel tension or discomfort.  

  2. Once you have identified an area, gently place one or both of your hands on the area.

  3. Soften your gaze or, if it feels safe in your body, close your eyes.

  4. Take a few slow breaths as you direct your attention to where your hand(s) is making contact, noting what the sensation feels like. 

  5. Continue to focus on this point of connection as you breathe in and out.

  6. You may notice the relaxation response kicking in–a yawn, a sigh, or a swallow. Your muscles may also soften beneath your hand(s) as they receive this gentle touch.

  7. Explore this self-soothing touch for as long as you like.


4. Body Scan


Seated meditation pose full body scan

Body scans offer a valuable opportunity to connect with your body. Body scans bring your awareness to areas where you may be holding physical, emotional, and mental tension. By mentally scanning the length of your body, you become attuned to every part of your body, noticing sensations such as aches, tension, discomfort, pain, emotions and feelings. 


Body scans are like a laser copier slowly scanning the length of your body–from the crown of your head all the way down to your toes. 


Body scan meditation practices can reduce feelings of stress, ease muscular tension, ground you in the present moment, and can cultivate feelings of self-compassion.


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable seat of your choosing, or lie down on your back. Explore a posture that feels grounding and soothing to you.

  2. Soften your focus or close your eyes.

  3. Feel your weight settle against the surface beneath you, noting points of connection.

  4. Observe the natural rhythm of your breath.

  5. When you feel ready, start the slow and gentle scan starting at the top of your head. 

  6. Observe any interesting sensations without trying to change them. 

  7. Continue this slow scan, scanning each part of your body all the way down to your toes.

  8. Once you’ve completed the scan, take a few more breaths.

  9. When you feel ready, open your eyes and notice how you feel.


5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation


Progressive muscle relaxation tensing the hands and arm muscles by making fists

The progressive muscle relaxation technique, also known as PMR, invites you to explore what muscular tension feels like versus muscular relaxation. For many, muscular tension may feel like a natural state, making PMR a valuable tool to identify and release areas of tension throughout your body. 


With PMR, you intentionally contract or tense certain muscle groups on your inhalation, and then gradually release that tension on the exhalation. 

 

This technique promotes muscular relaxation, and can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate. PMR is especially beneficial for those experiencing insomnia or chronic pain. 


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable seat or lie down on your back.

  2. Soften your gaze or close your eyes.

  3. As you breathe in, create tension in your face and head by smiling and squeezing your eyes shut. 

  4. Hold this tension for 5 seconds. 

  5. As you breathe out, slowly release the tension, allowing your scalp and facial muscles to soften and relax.

  6. Next, on your inhale, squeeze your shoulders up towards your ears.

  7. Hold this state of tension for 5 seconds. 

  8. On your breath out, slowly relax your shoulders away from your ears.

  9. Continue this process, moving towards the direction of your feet. Include your chest, back body, abdomen, upper arms, forearms, hands, pelvis, gluteal muscles, upper legs, lower legs, and feet.

  10. You can repeat this process again if you wish.

  11. Listen to your body during this exercise. If creating tension in certain areas feels uncomfortable due to an injury, pain or discomfort, feel free to skip those areas of your body.


Final Thoughts


Movement is medicine! Anxiety is looking for a way to move out of your body. Therefore, somatic exercises can play a crucial role in allowing anxiety to be felt and released. 


Consider incorporating movement into your daily routine, such as taking a leisurely walk where you can practice the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Schedule short body breaks throughout your workday to release stagnant energy, tension, and emotions. Stay hydrated in mindfulness practices by checking in with your breath several times a day. When strong emotions arise, offer yourself a self-soothing touch like a hug. Shake your limbs to release anything that doesn't serve you. Release muscular tension through body scans and the PRM technique. Dance to your favorite music, or participate in a somatic movement practice like yoga, Pilates, or Feldenkrais. 


Ready to explore a guided somatic movement practice? Join me on the mat for a Somatic Yoga for Anxiety Relief practice.



Explore more somatic exercises with this exclusive Free Somatic Exercises Guide.


Disclaimer: Rachel from Yoga with Rachel, highly recommends that you consult with your physician prior to participating in this exercise program. Please follow any safety precautions as indicated by your physician. Participating in any fitness regime involves the possibility of physical injury. Listen to your body. Stop the exercise if you are experiencing any pain or discomfort. If you decide to engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree to do so at your own risk. By voluntarily participating in these activities, you assume all risk of injury to yourself.

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